Kochi: Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), a body of Catholic bishops in Kerala has issued guidelines that acts as a code of conduct for priests and church officials.

The guidelines suggest rules to protect minors and vulnerable adults in church-run institutions from any form of sexual exploitation or abuse and proposes action against anyone committing such offences.

In a 16-page document for priests and other church officials, the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council emphasised that there should be zero tolerance towards sexual assault or harassment, asserting that such incidents occurring in its institutions should be reported to the church as well as the civil authorities.

The document titled "KCBC Guidelines for Safe Environment Programme for Church Personnel connected with institutions where minors or vulnerable adults are given particular care" was issued in June 2018 but has come into public domain only now.

Kerala was rocked by the rape charges levelled by a nun against bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar diocese last year leading to his arrest in September.

The nun had accused the 54-year old clergyman of repeatedly raping and having unnatural sex with her between 2014 and 2016.

A KCBC spokesperson Tuesday said the guidelines were issued in June 2018 and were "in the stage of implementation."

The document termed the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults as "heinous crimes and grave sins" and proposed necessary ecclesiastical disciplinary action against the offenders.

"Our Catholic presbyteries, churches, educational institutions, religious institutions, houses of special care and Catholic organisations should be places where all feel comfortable," it said.

The purpose of the guidelines was also to provide a safe and secure environment for minors and vulnerable adults to protect them from any form of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and to respond to victims of sexual offences with care and compassion, the KCBC said.

It also seeks to address the possibility of false accusations against the clergy, employees and volunteers.

According to the guidelines, Church officials shall refrain from viewing and exhibiting any sexually explicit or morally in-appropriate material in the presence of minors and vulnerable adults.

They shall not indulge in or encourage sexually offensive humour and conversation in the presence of minors and vulnerable adults, the document said.

Adults should ensure that there was no inappropriate physical contact with minors and no minor shall reside in any church rectory or other living quarters of priests, unless the minor is accompanied by parent or an adult entrusted by the parent, it said.

"Church personnel are bound to report cases of sexual offences to the authorities concerned and also cooperate with the investigation by civil authorities," the guidelines said.

The new policy was evolved on the basis of directives issued by the Vatican and the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

The Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Catholic Church last month decided to set up internal committees at the diocesan level to create a "safe environment" for all, including children and vulnerable adults.

The Catholic Church in India has been hit by various scandals involving priests in the recent past.

Bishop Mulakkal, a senior member of the Roman Catholic clergy in India, was arrested amid mounting public outrage over allegations of repeatedly raping and sexually assaulting the nun.